Palm Oil (PO) cultivation requires extensive areas of land. Its production has been linked to deforestation, climate change and socioeconomic instability. PO plantations support fewer tree and animal species, resulting in substantial loss of biodiversity. In turn, the extensive use of PO has been linked to habitat fragmentation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It can be predicted that such extensive biodiversity losses will only be avoided if future PO expansion does not involve deforestation.

So, given the devastating environmental effects linked to PO production, is it ethical to buy foods containing PO?

What is palm oil?

PO comes from the palm tree known as Elaeis Guineensis which is native to many West African countries. From the palm fruit itself, two different types of oils can be extracted: palm kernel oil from the seeds and PO from the mesocarp (middle fleshy layer) itself.

  • PO is used to formulate liquid detergents, lipsticks, waxes and polishes
  • In the food market PO is an ingredient in cooking oils, margarines, ice-cream, ready-to-eat meals and confectionary.

How does palm oil weigh up in terms of health?

PO contains around 50% saturated fatty acids, mainly in the form of palmitic acid. These in turn raise LDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

  • A meta-analysis of 30 articles has shown that PO compared with vegetable oil significantly raised LDL cholesterol.
  • Animal studies have found PO ingestion to be associated with impaired platelet aggregability and venous thrombosis, indicating an increased risk of thromboembolic diseases.
  • From a health perspective, substituting PO with vegetable oils may have benefits for LDL cholesterol.

What about infant and toddler foods?

The infant and toddler food market is steadily expanding. However, how closely do we look at the ingredients list? For sugar perhaps and the addition of additives. Yet should we be checking for PO, in particular PO from an unsustainable source?

  • Data from 100 products were included in the main analysis.
  • Results showed that PO was present in one in five (21%) of products reviewed.
  • When analysing biscuit-based products, PO was found in three out of five (60%) of these.
  • It was also evident in just under one-third (31%) of snack bars.
  • Other products tended to use sunflower oil, or vegetable oils such as rapeseed or canola. A minority used orange oil for flavour.
  • No products had labels for certified sustainable PO use.

Overall, these results show that PO is being used widely in specialist foods targeted at infants and young children.

Is there an alternative manufactures can use?

Labelling regulations in the European Union declared, in December 2014, that food products need to identify the origin of fats, along with a description of whether these are partially or fully hydrogenated.

  • Due to improved labelling procedures, the presence of PO can now be better identified.
  • PO could be replaced with blended liquid oils such as rapeseed oil, sunflower oil or soy bean oil. Whilst these may cause some technological challenges, these are not regarded as insurmountable.

What about sustainable PO?

PO is an incredibly high-yielding vegetable oil, and thus, one approach to save the detrimental effect on the environment is to use PO from sustainable producers.

  • Some stores are now actively seeking and using products that use sustainable PO eg, Marks and Spencer and Iceland.
  • Greater actions are needed from other stores.
  • In cases where sustainable PO is used, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label or Green Palm label may be shown, indicating that products are made with Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, also referred to as CSPO.

What can we do?

The inclusion of unsustainable palm oil in any foods, let alone those targeted at the next generation, just doesn’t sit well. The rising popularity of PO has also come at a cost to the environment. We, as consumers, should be looking closely and thinking about whether we really want to buy products containing unsustainable PO – particularly in foods targeted at next generations.

Key references:

Derbyshire EJ (2017) Palm Oil: Feeding the Next Generation on Unethical Oils? NHD Mag, Issue 20, pg: 34-36.

Sun Y et al. (2015) Palm Oil Consumption Increases LDL Cholesterol Compared with Vegetable Oils Low in Saturated Fat in a Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials. J Nutr 145(7):1549-58.